President Walter Reuther 1907-1970
Bio Compiled By Region 8 Webmaster John Davis
Walter Reuther served as President
of the UAW from 1946 until his death in 1970. Walter Reuther was
committed to working people and fought tirelessly throughout his
lifetime to improve the rights and compensation of working class
Americans both at the bargaining table and in the halls of Congress.
Walter Reuther was born in Wheeling, West Virginia
on September 01, 1907, the second of five children. His father was
a union driver for a brewery and had immigrated to America from
Germany. His father instilled in his boys the importance of unions
and their responsibility to be at the forefront of social and economic
Reuther dropped out of high school and completed
an apprenticeship in tool and die work. After being fired for trying
to organize a union at his shop in West Virginia, he moved to Detroit
and was hired at Ford’s River Rouge plant. Earning a reputation
as an excellent mechanic, Walter Reuther completed his high school
diploma in 1922 and began taking classes at Detroit City College
(now Wayne State). He was soon joined in Detroit by his brothers
Roy and Victor who also enrolled in Detroit City College.
The Great Depression consolidated the political and social activism
of the Brothers Reuther and they formed a Social Problems Club on
the campus. The group protested many of the injustice policies of
the being practiced around the city including the segregationist
policies of the local swimming pool.
The next year Walter and Victory left Detroit to
tour the world, ending up working at a Ford facility in Russia.
He returned to Detroit in 1935 and fell in love with a pretty physical
education teacher named May Wolf. They were married in 1936.
That same year Walter Reuther began his rise through
the ranks of the union. He first joined Local 86,
which represented workers at GM’s Temstadt parts plant even
though he didn’t work there. He went on to be elected as a
delegate to the 1936 UAW national convention where his speaking
skills led to his election to the International Executive Board.
Next Reuther was elected President of UAW Local
174 an amalgamated local representing 76 shops and 30,000 workers.
He helped play a key role in planning the successful sit-down strikes
that brought the UAW to GM in Flint, Michigan. These strikes were
successful in winning union recognition at both GM and Chrysler
but Ford had resisted organization. On May 26, 1937 Walter Reuther
and several other union activist were handling out material on the
overpass from the parking lot at Ford’s River Rough plant
when they were severely beaten by Ford thugs. Newspapers caught
the event and the brutality shown by Ford made the headlines nation
wide. The event became known as “the battle of the overpass”
and brought national attention to the struggles that workers were
facing to win the right for union representation.
In 1939 Reuther became the director of the UAW’s
GM Department and was elected the union’s first vice-president
in 1942. In 1940 Reuther suggested converting excess capacity in
the auto industry to military production. President Roosevelt had
called on the nation to take an “Arsenal of Democracy”
stance to prepare for war and Walter Reuther was in complete agreement.
Corporations argued against the idea, not wanting to give up any
portion of their business. After the attack on Pearl Harbor
in 1941, Reuther’s vision of the auto industry turning out
500 planes a day became a reality. President Roosevelt became friends
with the UAW leader and asked him to participate on a number of
wartime boards. The friendship between the Both Franklin and Eleanor
Roosevelt and Walter and May Reuther would last the remainder of
In 1946 Walter Reuther asked GM for a 30% raise
and the ensuing struggle resulted in a 116-day strike. Reuther challenged
GM to open the books to prove it wasn’t possible to grant
the 30% raise. GM refused but offered an 18% raise, which was accepted
by the UAW.
He was elected to the Presidency of the UAW in 1946,
bring along a post war agenda that included national health care,
economic redistribution and job security. While he want able to
accomplish these things for all working Americans, Reuther was successful
in reaching those goals for his members. In 1948 GM agreed to add
the cost of living allowance as future gains included health care,
the grievance procedure, health and safety provisions, pensions
and supplemental unemployment benefits. Walter Reuther’s bargaining
table gains for UAW members set the standard for workplace compensation
as hundreds of thousands of non-union members enjoyed benefits made
the standard by the UAW.
efforts for workers made Walter Reuther public enemy number one
by the corporate hoodlums that ran the industry. In 1938 he was
almost kidnapped and murdered by gunmen. In 1948 another assassination
attempt failed to end his life, but left permanent damage to his
right arm. Dubbed “the most dangerous man in Detroit,”
Walther Reuther didn’t let these attempts on his life weaken
his resolve, but rather used it as inspiration to push harder for
the rights of America’s workers.
Walther Reuther held a strong belief that the breadbox
and ballot box were connected. He was often quoted as saying “it
doesn’t matter what you win at the bargaining table, if the
gains can be legislated away in the halls of Congress.” Beginning
with Franklin Roosevelt, President Reuther became and advisor to
each of the Democratic Presidents all the way to Lyndon Johnson.
His convictions pushed his belief that the Federal Government should
guarantee the civil liberties of its citizens as he pushed to expand
social programs for the less fortunate. Reuther used his political
clout to help millions of citizens, regardless of their affiliation
with the UAW. He was a strong advocate of tying Social Security
to workers pensions to reduce the amount of expense to companies
from their pensions plans. His efforts resulted
in the first raise in Social Security in 12 years, which benefited
every recipient – not just his members.
The rights of all people was another battle that
found Walter Reuther on the frontlines. In 1959 he met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the two became fast
friends. While some labor organizations were slow to come on board
with the Civil Rights movement, President Walter Reuther committed
the UAW’s help up front. Reuther joined Dr.
King on many of his marches and gave an address to
the crowd to open the historic “march to Selma.” Again
he joined Dr. King to protest in Birmingham as the
crowd was met with fire hoses and police dogs. It was in fact Reuther
who bailed King out of jail following the demonstration.
In 1963 Dr. King felt the time was right to take
their message to the national stage and became planning a march
on Washington. However, being the methodical thinker that he was,
King decided to hold a march in Detroit to test the waters before
going to Washington. The “Walk to Freedom March” was
organized from an office at the UAW’s headquarters Solidarity
House, with space donated by Walter Reuther. Dr. King also planned
the March of Washington from the same office.
During the March on Washington, Walter Reuther was
the only Caucasian to speak from the podium that day. Afterwards,
one of Reuther’s aides overheard two ladies backstage discussing
who he was. One asked the other is she knew him, to which the reply
came “that is Walter Reuther, and he is as good a man as Dr.
King.” It is said that Reuther always considered that statement
a great complement.
President Reuther knew that education was the key
to social improvement and late in his life he dedicated much of
his time to that cause. His final achievement was building the Walter
and May Reuther Family Education Center (better known as Black Lake)
in northern Michigan. The vision included
classrooms and facilities so UAW members could assemble and be educated
on the issues of the day. Reuther took an extreme interest in the
project, even personally decided which trees would be saved in the
construction. The center rivals anything of its kind in terms of
design and purpose. On May 09, 1970 Walter and May Reuther, Architect
Oscar Stonorov and their pilot were on their way to view the completed
facility just prior to the official opening. Their plane went down
in a rainstorm near Pellston, Michigan.
Walter Reuther is quoted as saying “There
is no greater calling than to serve your fellow man. There is no
greater contribution than to help the weak. There is no greater
satisfaction than to have done it well.” If this is the case,
then Walter Reuther must have surely died a satisfied man. His contributions
to working class people the world over should never be forgotten.
Reuther knew that social justice is at the heart of everything that
organized labor stands for and his legacy is an inspiration to all
those who continue his work today.